As writers, we all have different approaches to our craft. Some may write while listening to music, some may write their work before typing it, or if you are like me—you are writing every available moment. But the one thing that we all have in common—in the end, regardless how we got there, our work all goes to the same place: to the editor.
John and I have been working on, through, over, and around Sweet Tea for the last year. Have you ever wondered what goes through an editor’s mind as he or she is red lining your work? I have—so I asked.
SR: John, it took you a bit to convince me that I was actually going to have to send you Sweet Tea in order for you to assess the project. Did you ever have your doubts on whether I would even send Sweet Tea?
JCM: Sure I had doubts. When first talking with any writer, an editor is faced with a lot of unknowns, including whether or not the person should be publishing. Until I have a look at the story itself, I have no real idea about the story’s merits. What kept me asking about it was the fact that you’d written seven volumes to the story. Put another way, of the percentage of people who even say that want to write a book, only a small percentage even start one, and only a small percentage of those people finish writing one. You wrote seven! Even someone as math-challenged as I am could figure out that you were going to keep writing, which is one core requirement for any writer who wishes to succeed. What I really wanted to know was how well you were putting the story together, and where the story itself was directed.
SR: When we first started, all I had to work with to communicate with you was my Droid. What were your thoughts after receiving notes and endless emails that all our correspondences were being handled over a cell phone?
JCM: Shock, horror, and disbelief. I’ve had a home computer for decades, and cannot imagine even trying to deal with anything related to editing on a one- or two-inch screen. Did I mention I was horrified? I am still horrified to this day! My cell is great for a number of things, not so great for others. I read a book on it—once—and though the book was great, I was not (and am not) a fan of reading on a tiny screen, let alone edit using it. I give you a lot of credit for perseverance.
SR: So you finally receive Sweet Tea—in very raw form. What were your first thoughts once you started reading?
JCM: My first thought was “Raw.” Heh. One thing I liked was your intro chapter. It showed me that you had an intuition for story assembly. As one of my writing professors once said (another on the “often requoted” list), “Start with a roundhouse.” This is not a suggestion to begin every novel with explosions and mayhem, but as in many things, first impressions are very important. Bear in mind that when a reader is on Amazon or any retailer that offers a look inside a book, the reader is going to go for that first page to see if something catches her or him. Hook that person within the first few paragraphs, or watch the person swim away.
SR: Sweet Tea is not a book that you would normally read, but you did a great job editing this paranormal romance. What was your favorite part of the book and why?
JCM: As a preface to my answer, I have to say that some of my favorite stories are ones that I probably would never have read without some outside force pushing me to do so. Before reading Wuthering Heights, I had very little interest in reading it. Once through, I was a convert. I love all my writers’ stories!
There are a few spots that I particularly like, but I’m going to go with the incident at the Mississippi. Not to give the story away, but up to that point, Lizzie’s life is only “complicated” in a way that most of us wouldn’t mind—lots of friends around, two attractive people chasing after her (both of whom sincerely care for her, deeply), a rather wealthy dad who dotes on his daughter…. A protagonist who sails through a story unscathed is not necessarily going to be a compelling character. The best characters are damaged, and the more damaged, the more compelling.
SR: While doing revisions, I could tell by comments the direction you were leaning on characters. Lizzie wasn’t your favorite at first, but at the end you seem to soften up a little. What changed?
JCM: Yeah, Lizzie was a very tough sell for me at first, and since she’s the central character, I had some concerns. What changed was your ability to explain what was going on in Lizzie’s head. I was concerned about Lizzie’s motivations, and your ability to effectively provide them to the reader.
We talked about this a number of times over the past few months, but the idea of “show, don’t tell” has a pretty broad reach. In Lizzie’s case, the first draft depended too much on actions and dialogues with others, and not enough on what was going on in her head. Once you started easing up on the surface descriptions and explanations, and started looking deeper into who Lizzie was and why she was reacting the way she was, I started to see a person forming. That was when I really started to see the story beginning to click.
SR: There are many characters in Sweet Tea. Who was your favorite and why?
JCM: I’d probably go with Cain Atchley. One thing that caught my attention—and another way in which you do a good job creating characters who are distinct individuals—is that he calls Lizzie “Elizabeth” from the beginning. Sure, the Aussie accent is good and all, but I appreciate that you make him distinguish himself from everyone else around in calling her by her full name. This also serves to suggest another side to Lizzie, a separate element to the character.
SR: We have discussed “The Plan” at great lengths from the name to the absolute madness that it causes a couple of my vampires. Besides “show, don’t tell” (and my regional flair), what was the one thing (you only get to tell one!) I did as a writer that drove you insane!
JCM: Wait a minute! As I recall, your regional flair was one of the book’s selling points from the start! I just noted that if you were going to go with a regional dialect: that it should be intentional for each character, rather than simply you writing the way you might speak.
Anyway, as I go back and read my review notes, one thing that was bugging me at the beginning was overuse of “I.” Writers who go with the First Person point of view in their narratives often fall into the “I” trap. Finding ways around overuse of “I” is not only an exercise in learning how to use words more effectively, but in how to find alternative phrasing. Readers get sensitized to any word that’s used too often, and though we’re more deadened to “I,” overuse can still get under one’s skin after a while. Plus, “I saw,” “I watched as” and similar phrases are unnecessary. The reader expects that if something is being described, it’s because the character is doing what the character is supposed to be doing, which is watching. Injecting the character into a moment of dramatic action (e.g. “I watched as the car overturned and exploded”) distracts the reader from the action itself.
SR: Overall thoughts on Sweet Tea?
JCM: It’s the sort of story that builds up slowly. I think the intro does a great job in setting up questions in the readers’ minds about where the larger story is going, and Lizzie’s dad’s explanation of The Three Crowns serves to heighten the sense that there’s a hidden truth those around Lizzie aren’t talking about. Why doesn’t Lizzie know or remember? What will the eventual connection between Cain, Rob and Lizzie look like? And since we’re talking about The Plan, we know that there are supernatural creatures involved. What are they all about? For a series, getting the questions started keeps the reader reading.
SR: We are now heading North– Volume II of The Three Crowns series. You recently sent over the cover (which I loved!) This is not part of your editing, but a talent that I am sure glad you have! Is this something you enjoy?
JCM: I’ve been drawing since I was very young, and studied filmmaking and animation many years ago in school. I feel that my visual side helps me with my writing. Fortunately, it is also a pretty valuable tool in my current profession, since I seem to be doing a fair number of graphic design projects for clients in addition to my editing duties. In addition to your books, I’m doing some cover work for another client, and to the present I’ve assembled the covers for all my written works as well.
SR: You have read a little of North and soon we will be in the middle of edits and revisions. Are you ready for North and what are your thoughts?
JCM: After reading about Lizzie’s Glock in the excerpt you provided (see our writer interview for details), I get the sense things are going to get even more interesting than I’d expected when first starting in on Sweet Tea. I now know enough about the remaining volumes of the series that the slow start is leading up to a very intense climax. And after reading the first few chapters of North, what I really appreciate is seeing the change in story flavor. I can see that in the midst of all that snowy whiteness, we’re beginning to look into some dark places.
SR: Last question, when you are editing and you get aggravated, what do you do to not get burnt out so you can keep putting forth your best work and continue guiding your writers in the right direction.
JCM: I have a number of coping mechanisms. The default is to write acerbic comments on the manuscript, taking the writer to task. I’ve been told by most of my clients that my snippy comments are quite amusing. Different editors work different ways, and I know some folks who are more harsh than I am. Some writers like that, though I haven’t met any of those, but I rarely get so annoyed at a person that I really take them to task, though it does happen on occasion. I take occasional breaks when editing to refresh myself using word games, other “brain training” puzzles, or even just picking up a pad and pencil or pen and doing some sketching. Naturally enough, I tend to pull large chunks of my hair out when I see a mistake that I’ve mentioned being repeated. As an editor and writer I have a fairly large vocabulary, so I’m able to come up with some very colorful language, which I sometimes shout into a pillow, or out the nearest window. And when things get really bad, I default to the time-honored writer/editor tradition of heavy drinking.
SR: Well I will make you a deal; if you ever make it to Missouri I will buy you a couple of well-earned Stouts. Thanks for being a great editor!
Sonya Ray has just published Sweet Tea, the first in her seven-novel Three Crowns series. Volume II, North, will be out in the spring of 2014.